In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch shoots and kills a rabid dog. Why? Because you can’t rationalize with an animal, especially a crazy animal caught by disease.
Too many Americans--even influential pundits and politicians--feel the same way about Arabs or Muslims, especially the extremists. From Andrew Bacevich in the Washington Post:
"You have to understand the Arab mind," one company commander told the New York Times..."The only thing they understand is force -- force, pride and saving face."
Far from representing the views of a few underlings, such notions penetrated into the upper echelons of the American command. In their book "Cobra II," Michael R. Gordon and Gen. Bernard E. Trainor offer this ugly comment from a senior officer: "The only thing these sand n*****s understand is force and I'm about to introduce them to it.”
Societies use language to manipulate how we feel about other groups. We use language to dehumanize our enemies. By dehumanizing them, we make them easier to kill. It’s one thing to kill another rational human being with thoughts, emotions, feelings and a family. It’s another to kill a “sand n*****” who can’t be reasoned with.
Muslims (even the so called “islamofascists”) aren’t animals. They aren’t less than human. They aren’t barbarians, primitives or savages. They’re people. We may hate them and what they do. They’re still human.
We’ve been writing about language and hate speech for these last few months not because we’re grammar and usage mavens (though I am). We’re writing about language and war because words matter especially when those words sustain conflicts instead of ending them. Words actively change points of view and perceptions. Words actively shape worldviews. Language affects whether the American military ever tries to adopt population-centric counterinsurgency, or whether it decides that the enemy is an sub-human that must (and can only) be killed.
Take this quote from Marcus Luttrell in Lone Survivor:
“To meet these guys in these remote Pashtun villages only made the conundrum more difficult. Because right here we’re talking about Primitive with a big P. Adobe huts made out of sun-dried clay bricks with dirt floors and awful smell of urine and mule dung. Downstairs they have goats and chickens living in the house. And yet here, in these caveman conditions, they planned and then carried out the most shocking atrocity on a twenty-first-century city.”
This quote makes the masterminds of 9/11 sound like backwards primitives. But Osama bin Laden was anything but. Osama bin Laden, as is commonly known, was a millionaire from a rich, cultured family. He was educated; he was not a primitive. In fact, most terrorists are educated.
Tactically, this misguided belief puts us (the West, if you will) at a disadvantage. Understanding the enemy is the key to winning a war. By not actually knowing your enemy, you can’t defeat them. By labeling all Muslims--or at least, entire nations--as backwards, primitive, savages or barbarians, it destroys all nuance. After the Innocence of Muslims debacle from last year, Slate ran an article on Muslims who support free speech.
But I hate writing about tactics. Just like the debate about torture, it doesn’t matter if hate speech is ineffective; morally, it’s wrong. That’s all that matters.